March 26, 2010 9:02:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The "experts" have spoken.
On Thursday, ESPN.com contributors Charlie Creme, Graham Hays, and Mechelle Voepel turned in their predictions for the Sweet 16 pairings in the women''s NCAA tournament.
It wasn''t surprising they said some interesting stuff about seventh-seeded Mississippi State''s matchup at 1:32 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2) against third-seeded Florida State in Dayton, Ohio.
"... In a lot of ways, Florida State looks like the Ohio State team Mississippi State beat decisively. But lightning rarely strikes twice in the same place, and the Seminoles are too good defensively to let the Bulldogs shoot better than 50 percent from the field, as Mississippi State did in upsetting the Buckeyes," wrote Hays in picking FSU (28-5) to win the game.
MSU senior guard Alexis Rack smiled when Hays'' analysis was read to her.
"Show up to the game Sunday," Rack said. "We''re definitely not satisfied with a win. People think (Ohio State) just played bad, but they just didn''t play bad. We made the game. We took the game. It is not like they gave it to us. Like I said, show up Sunday. I am not a big talker."
Rack did her talking Tuesday on the court, scoring a game-high 30 points to lead MSU (21-12) to an 87-67 victory against second-seeded Ohio State at the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh.
The victory secured the first trip to the Sweet 16 for MSU, and it did so in dominating fashion. The Lady Bulldogs forced 24 turnovers and had a 37-9 edge in points off those mistakes. They also shot 55.7 percent from the field (its third-best showing of the season) and 54.5 percent from 3-point range, its best showing since the season opener last season.
MSU''s 12 3-pointers also were a season high.
Still, those numbers weren''t enough to sway Creme, who wrote: "The Seminoles were the ACC''s second-most consistent team. The Bulldogs were one of the SEC''s least consistent" in picking the Seminoles.
Earlier this season, Creme summarized MSU performance particularly well when he said something to the effect that when Rack is on and the Lady Bulldogs are playing defense, they have the potential to be a Sweet 16 team.
Voepel liked MSU''s victories against Middle Tennessee State and Ohio State enough to pick the Lady Bulldogs to beat the Seminoles. She said, "If the Seminoles had trouble stopping a younger and less-seasoned St. John''s team in the second round -- surviving in overtime in Tallahassee (their home) -- the combination of the Bulldogs'' experience and the neutral court could stop Florida State before it has a second meeting this season with UConn."
That''s not a ringing endorsement of MSU, but Voepel recognizes the Lady Bulldogs'' experience and athleticism, two things that were keys in a rally from a nine-point deficit in the second half against MTSU. Against Ohio State, MSU took the Buckeyes'' first punch, which included a 7-for-7 start from 3-point range. The Lady Bulldogs countered by raising their level of execution on offense. Rack led the charge by hitting 6 of 12 3-pointers.
"I just want to play my best," Rack said. "I am going into the game with more of an aggressive attitude."
Senior Chanel Mokango (19 points), senior guard Armelie Lumanu (17 points, six rebounds, five assists, six steals), and junior guard Mary Kathryn Govero (15 points on 5-of-6 shooting from 3-point range) also scored in double figures.
"I don''t think any of us would have told you beforehand we thought we were going to beat them by 20 points," Govero said. "We knew we could beat them, but we would never have anticipated the way we beat them."
MSU played that well with senior forward Tysheka Grimes logging only four minutes. Grimes suffered a foot injury late in the second half Sunday against MTSU and was questionable to play against Ohio State. She tried to go in the first half, missing two shots and grabbing a rebound, but she knew she wasn''t 100 percent and took herself out of the game. Her status for Sunday remains uncertain.
Grimes missed the first 10 games of the Southeastern Conference season. The Lady Bulldogs also played without Rack against the University of Mississippi on Feb. 14 in Starkville. MSU delivered one of its most cohesive efforts of the season that day in a 73-54 victory.
The players said Thursday they didn''t know how long Grimes would be able to go against Ohio State and that her absence didn''t serve as motivation. They said they believed in each other, had each others'' backs, and rose to the challenge to beat essentially the same team that knocked it out of the NCAA tournament in the second round last season.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis was pleased the Lady Bulldogs got the right players the right touches at the right time against Ohio State. But as well as the team played she said there is still plenty of room for improvement.
"We have said this as a team, we still haven''t played our best basketball," Fanning-Otis said. "I think we touched on our best game of the year together against Ohio State. But if we don''t improve there won''t be another game.
"Now (when I say improve) does that mean you''re going to shoot a better percentage or score more points? No. That means we''re going to have to get steady for 40 minutes and not have the defensive lapse of letting someone shoot an uncontested shot."
Fanning-Otis said the greatest challenge MSU will face Sunday is how it will respond if it doesn''t shoot as well from the field as it did against Ohio State. She hopes the Lady Bulldogs have a few more efforts like that in them, but she knows there aren''t any guarantees.
"That''s why it is called March Madness, I suppose," Fanning-Otis said. "I know we''re going to try to take what we have just done and try to emphasize to them what I said in our postgame press conference: To stay humble and to stay hungry. You have to realize what got you there. ... They need to get better. This is not a new season. You have gone through the nerves and made an adjustment, and now you''re back to work."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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